The Inspirational Story of “Oh Happy Day” – Elmore-Autauga News

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BY MICHEL BIRD

Editor’s Note: You can listen to this song at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfGDvDGE7zk

In the summer of 1969, an arrangement of a 1755 Baptist hymn became a Top 40 hit. The story of how it happened is fascinating.

Edwin Hawkins was a church pianist at the Ephesian Church of God in Berkeley, California. Berkeley had been ground zero for student protests in the late 1960s, but Northern California was also at the forefront of the Jesus movement of the same era which produced much contemporary gospel music.

In preparation for the Northern California State Youth Choir, Hawkins arranged eight hymns for young people to sing. The youth choir was made up of people between the ages of 17 and 25, and they needed to raise money for a trip to a church youth conference in Washington, D.C.

The eight tracks were hastily recorded in a church on a simple two-track tape recorder. 500 copies of the disc were pressed. One of the copies was forwarded to KSAN-FM in San Francisco. A popular disc jockey named Abe “Voco” Kesh put “Oh Happy Day” into his regular rotation, and the song became a local hit. Other radios followed. Before long, Buddah Records signed the Northern California State Youth Choir – now known as the Edwin Hawkins Singers – to a distribution deal.

With his jazzy groove echoing Brazilian pop, Hawkins has cited Sergio Mendes as an influence on his radical overhaul of the anthem.

“I liked how he alternated between major and minor keys and created rhythmic patterns on the keyboard,” he explained. “My introduction to the piano was along these lines.”

The lead vocalist on the record is Dorothy Morrison, who was singing in her church choir in Richmond, California when she was selected for the Youth Choir.

“The lyrics were simple and they rhymed, but there was a lot to remember,” she said in a later interview. “In church, I wrote two sections on my palms with a pen. The third section I memorized. During the recording, I raised my hands, palms facing me. Everyone thought I felt the spirit. I was – but I was also reading the lyrics.

Morrison later became a backup vocalist on records for Paul Simon, Boz Scaggs and Chicago, among others.

The arrangement starts out peaceful and calm but picks up momentum. The simplified lyrics of the original anthem boil down to three lines:

“Oh happy day / when Jesus washed away / my sins.”

The choir backs the lead singer in a call and response style, but then the choir breaks out and all the voices sing:

“He taught me to watch, to fight and to pray / and to live rejoicing each day”

Then the choir calms down for a minute before singing increasingly loud and insistent praise with each repetition: “Oh happy day!

The song entered the Hot 100 in May 1969 and reached #4 that summer. Yes, the summer of 1969, forever immortalized in popular culture as the summer of the Tate-LaBianca “Helter Skelter” murders, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, and three days of peace and music on the farm by Max Yasgur in Woodstock.

Just then, ‘Oh Happy Day’, a 200-year-old song, hit the charts and was even performed twice on the first day of the Woodstock festival by people who had probably never set foot. in a church. .

“Oh Happy Day” won a Grammy in 1970 for Best Soul Performance. It has been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows over the years since.

Edwin Hawkins could not have known that his use of contemporary sounds like synthesizers, a Latin groove and an R&B lead singer would influence future generations of gospel music. But without a doubt, the Good News reached the general public when this message was most needed.

Michael Bird was a music teacher for 26 years, mostly for schools in the town of Tallassee in Elmore County. He is also a night manager for Tallassee Super Foods, a columnist for the Tallassee Tribune and a radio host on 580 WACQ & FM 98.5. Mr. Bird is married to professional musician Sena Thibodeaux Bird and they have seven children ranging in age from 25 to 8 years old.

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